Every athlete has their favorite memory and, when Joanie French talks about hers, it’s almost too good to be true.
In 1974, at age 17, there she was playing shortstop for Big Blue in the Women’s State fastpitch softball tournament against Foremost Dairy, known as Springfield’s best travel squad full of coaches and collegians.
With a one-run game in the final inning of a tournament semifinal, a batter knocked a one-hopper to the fence in left center. French watched the tying run rounding second base and then third as her sister, Mary, the center fielder, tracked it down. French, the cutoff, took the perfect relay throw, turned and …
“I threw a one-hop strike to Cathy Bishop, our catcher, who held on to the ball as she was bowled over at the plate. Game over,” French said. “It still gives me a thrill.”
Over the next decade, French emerged as a trailblazer on whose shoulders the standouts of following eras now stand. Clearly, she was among the state’s best athletes of the 1970s and early 1980s, and that’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted French with the Class of 2022.
In the early years following passage of the 1972 federal Title IX legislation – which required public schools and universities to offer sports for women – French showed the way.
She starred at Parkview High School, Missouri State University and earned a spot on USA Volleyball’s 1979 team before playing for the Dallas Diamonds of the Women’s Professional Basketball League.
At Parkview, she played tennis, volleyball and basketball, plus ran track, leading the Lady Vikings to city titles in all four sports her senior year. She also led all city high school basketball players in scoring that season and was an amateur softball standout before the sport was played at the high school level.
At Missouri State, she starred in four sports, winning the A.J. McDonald Achievement Award for athletic and academic excellence upon her graduation in 1978. She took the volleyball team to four consecutive state and regional championship and AIAW national tournament appearances.
French also helped the basketball team win a state title and, as a senior, led the softball team to state and region championships, qualifying for the College World Series, where she led the field in stolen bases. She also was a high jumper on campus, winning a state title her sophomore season.
All this from a player who, with her parents and six siblings, relocated from Georgia when she was 9 years old.
When she made that great play for Big Blue, it was just ahead of her freshman year at Missouri State.
At the time, she had considered another college, whose basketball players later would join the All American Red Heads pro traveling team (MSHOF 2017).
However, French headed to Missouri State at a time when Dr. Mary Jo Wynn (MSHOF Legend 2014), the pioneer of women’s athletics on campus, was putting the pieces together for a successful women’s athletic department.
French played two seasons for the softball team and also ran some track. Yet volleyball became her sport. Surprisingly, that is.
“I didn’t know how to play volleyball,” French said, noting Parkview didn’t offer the sport until her senior year. “But after four years, Linda Dollar (MSHOF 2011) really taught me how to play. I was so grateful for the coaching and my teammates. They challenged me and gave me the confidence to play at the next level.”
Because the collegiate volleyball season lasted into December, French usually didn’t join the basketball team until after the holidays. Coach Reba Sims (MSHOF 2009) always welcomed me on the team with lots of running to get me in shape for basketball.”
After graduation, she earned a spot on the USA national volleyball team in 1979. Fortunately, French still owns a copy of the team photo, and can still name every teammate.
Starting in the fall of 1980, French played two seasons of pro basketball, teaming up with Nancy Lieberman in Dallas. In 1982, her team won the English national championship and played two rounds in the European Cup.
In 1981, French was voted Outstanding Young Woman of Missouri.
To French, many contributed to her success: Parents Anna Mae and Richard, Sr., sisters Paulette, Linda, Mary and Madeline, and brothers Richard, Jr., and Joe, as well as numerous coaches and teammates.
Asked to describe her career, French offered, “Grateful. Title IX gave me a lot of opportunities and experiences.”